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Smiling confident businesswomanSo many are trying to figure out what the future of higher education will look like, when there are so many competing factors and difficulties. This Intelligence Squared debate is a great example of some of the competing tensions. It raises many, many good questions, and many potential answers. It’s worth listening to if you’ve any interest in where higher education is going. Below, you’ll find summaries of the 5 main advantages of online education, and the 5 main disadvantages of online education, as argued by the folks in the debate.

(Intelligence Squared has done a couple of great debates about education, including one about whether or not Affirmative Action On Campus Does More Harm Than Good, one on whether not to Ban College Football, and one on whether or not Too Many Kids Go To College.)

Here are the top 5 takeaways from the debate for the advantages of online education:

#1: Learn at your own pace

Online education can afford students the ability to learn as they choose, when they choose, how they choose. They can watch their professors’ lectures multiple times, pausing, rewinding, muting, whatever helps them the most. They can complete their work on schedules that fit their existing life styles. They can study at times that might fit their own studying patterns, instead of having to adjust to required patterns. Being able to learn at their own pace allows students to learn better than those at brick and mortar institutions, the theory goes.

#2: Instant Feedback

Online education can capitalize on the capacity for instantaneous feedback throughout your educational experience. Hand in a homework assignment – instantly get it back with corrections. There are even algorithms that can analyze essays and feed them back with grades very quickly, although there is some disagreement about the efficacy of those programs. Students learn better if they are engage and capable of obtaining instantaneous feedback, some studies have shown, and online education seems potentially more adept at that feedback than traditional college experiences.

#3: Interactive Exercises

Coupled with instantaneous feedback is the potential for interactive exercises. Rote homework assignments are not necessary in online courses when technology allows for the creation of complex, interactive learning methods. Imagine assignments that are less “Answer this problem” and more “Play this game,” and you see the potential for online education’s interactivity.

#4: Universal Availability

Online education promises to be more available to more students than brick and mortar schools ever could be. On a very simple, practical level, a physical school has a limit to how many students can actually be on campus at any given time – but an online course has no such limits. An American online course can be accessed by someone in India, and someone in American can likewise learn Japanese straight from a Japanese online course. The potential for accessibility is one of online courses’ greatest strengths.

#5: Continuing progress

Online education is in its infancy. It’s only just started, and it’s already made enormous strides forward in form, technology, accessibility, financing, and so on. The future looks bright for online education, especially as the tools only become better and more developed. Getting into it now will help you learn the skills you’ll need to get the most out of it, and will get you in on the ground floor as it gets better and better.


Here are the top five takeaways for the disadvantages of online education:

#1: Not so good for subtlety

Courses that are about subtlety, about nuance, are often harder to run in an online format. Online classes, of necessity, often rely on more static resources like videos and written documents. It’s harder to communicate intricate, difficult points through that kind of resource than it is while in person, while working directly alongside a professor.

#2: Not too much evidence yet

The flip side of online courses being so young is that we don’t yet have a clear understanding of how effective they really are. We have statistics about completion and attendance, but we don’t yet clearly know whether or not the skills people are learning in online courses are making substantial differences in people’s lives, consistently helping people get into the same level of careers they would with a more traditional college education, etc. There’s not enough information yet, especially considering that online colleges don’t generally offer degrees of the same level as brick and mortar schools.

#3: Online courses don’t have the research element

Brick and mortar colleges and universities are more than just educational institutions. They are also often the sources of some of the best research in the world. That’s critical when considering online courses and what they do. If you’re studying a subject, an online course might be excellent for learning about it, but it’s going to have a much harder time giving you access to hands-on academic research on that subject the same way that a brick and mortar school might.

#4: Less contact

Students taking online courses can still have plenty of contact with professors and peers through online systems, but in general, there’s likely to less such contact than there would be at a brick and mortar school. Living with fellow students, being able to walk over to a professor’s house, meeting up for study groups at the dining hall – these are all activities that you won’t have access to in the same way through an online course. In general, the way that a professor has contact with students in an in-person classroom is going to be rather different from the way that a professor will have contact with students in an online course, and that can be an issue.

#5: Financial dilemmas

Right now, a lot of online courses are free, but they’re also unaccredited. For online courses to truly reach the same level of utility and prominence as brick and mortar schools, they’d likely have to get accreditation, and at that point, their lack of expense might change. Having a workable economic model for students to pay for accredited worthwhile online education is one of the hurdles that online education providers are tackling as they move forward.